My daughter is often invited to birthday parties. On this particular Saturday, finding a gift will be one of a number of errands we will complete. I am therefore required to join the excursion. Nearing the end of our list, we arrive at the mall where my wife chooses to buy most presents.
“They gift wrap for free and have a ‘rewards’ program,” she reminded me.
“Excellent reasons” I agreed.
Pausing for a moment, she gives me a look that in most families would be reserved for the children. Knowing my penchant for quiet moments in bookstores, she releases me for half an hour to go to the Starbuck in the Barnes and Noble. Not unexpected, and always prepared, I retrieve my journal from the car.
The misters knock seven or eight degrees off this 110-degree day. Moist breath from overhead hangs in the air for pedestrians to paddle through. The consumption of energy is all around; the hum of air conditioners chilling to absurd levels the interior retail spaces.
A predictable blast of cold air greets me as I enter through the single side door. In any other part of the world, double or revolving doors would be mandatory to shield the cold. Why is the reverse, keeping the heat out any different?
A tour of the store’s perimeter confirms earlier musings that the inviting black desks were stacked high with books and not available to sit and write. With the café area offering the only table seating, I feel obligated to buy something and select a bottle of Fiji water.
My first choice of a table, one with anonymity and an angle for surveillance was occupied, at least with someone’s personal items. I settle into the spot next to it across from the periodicals. A low wall to my right separates me from the food service area. Cracking the blue plastic seal on the bottle, the first impression on the mouth is that the Fiji water is warm. Glancing back, I see they know that the cooler is not working. A man in gray overalls is removing the base plate, a toolbox and gas canister by his side.
Appreciative of a few moments to write, I am physically distracted. My stomach is bloated and uncomfortable from lunch. Excesses of potato chips and junk food left me with no way of knowing which item my fragile intestines were rejecting. The buffet of choices from which I sampled included any number of dietary sins: the msg and food coloring of the Doritos, the salt and chemicals of Cheetos, hydrogentated oils, MSG, or the artificial spices.
A slender woman with close-cropped brown hair has rejoined her personal belongings at the table behind me. She has excessive body odor. It lingers in the displaced air as she shuffles by. She has three bags. On the floor closest to me, an overflowing vinyl satchel, a curling iron pokes out from beneath a brown wide knit sweater or shawl. A plain white plastic bag, the kind you would put laundry in at a hotel has the drawstrings pulled tight at the top. The curve of the plastic shell, rounded like my bloated belly, belies clothing within. The third is a canvas gym bag. The zipper broken at the midway point, papers and a thick paperback novel poke out.
She drifts in and out of the scene. Each arrival shares a wave of sweat and dirt. As I ponder changing to a different table, I awaken to being immune to human suffering. I had been very slow to realize she is a homeless person hiding in the air conditioning. Calculated pacing of the store, not wanting to linger too long in any one place for fear of being evicted. This slice of suburbia that I call home is a long way from the downtown shelters and shadowed alleyways. My life in this hermetically sealed world has shielded me for too long from social unpleasantness — out of sight, out of mind.
I am disappointed in myself for my earlier aspersions. I had spat judgments on her appearance and smell, as if really had any influence on my ability to be happy in this moment. We are both strangers here. She is probably hungry, at least now cool, while I lament about too much junk food and warm bottled water.
She is probably looking at me, wondering what its like to have idle time to sit in a café with a shiny black fountain pen and crystal clear, chlorine free bottled water shipped from some distant island.